Wendy Tolleson told me recently that her father, Navy Capt. Robert T. Tolleson, was the primary recovery officer for all the Gemini and Apollo space missions in the Pacific.
The first manned U.S. spaceflight program was Project Mercury from 1958 to 1963. NASA then created Project Gemini, from 1961 to 1966, which carried two astronauts. The Apollo program, with three astronauts, followed that and landed on the moon for the first time in 1969.
The spacecraft reentered Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 25,000 mph. Most landed in the Pacific Ocean where they were recovered by Robert Tolleson’s Task Force 130 manned spaceflight rescue team.
The landing zone, Tolleson said in a 1969 newspaper article, was a 2,500-mile- long rectangle that ran east of Midway island, slightly north of Hawaii and south of American Samoa in the Southern Hemisphere.
“The landing zone bull’s-eye will depend on many things, including the time of takeoff from Cape Kennedy, the number of earth orbits made before the astronauts shove off for the moon, the number of moon orbits and the position of the moon relative to the earth at the time the spacemen start back for it,” he said.
Tolleson said the primary recovery ships were the Yorktown, Hornet and other aircraft carriers. If the astronauts landed a lengthy distance from them, rescue airmen from Hickam Air Force Base would parachute to their bobbing spacecraft, he said.
Some of the recoveries were at night, and to prepare, flight, diving and medical teams ran through numerous simulated rescues.
The primary telemetry responsibility was handled by computer technicians at Kokee Park, Kauai. Tolleson’s team worked out of the Kunia communications tunnel.
“My family came to Hawaii in 1963 when I was 9 years old,” recalls Wendy Tolleson, who lives in Honolulu. “I grew up on Ford Island, and Dad was the senior officer on the island (even over the admiral) as seniority was determined by how long you lived there, and my family lived there the longest — nine years!
“Hangar 79, which is part of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum today, was my father’s hangar. The space capsules were stored there before being shipped back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard large C-133B aircraft.
“I remember riding my bicycle in that hangar, sometimes around the resident capsule, and peeling off some of the heat protection Mylar on them that had fused from re-entry.
“My father coordinated the fleet of ships that retrieved the capsules after they splashed down in the Pacific. He wrangled all the civilian personnel, divers and the other commands to collect the capsules and astronauts. He worked for Adm. McCain, former Sen. John McCain’s father.
“Dad kept a low profile, as his job was top secret, and he was a very self-effacing man. He doesn’t even appear in official Navy photos taken during the recoveries. The ships were always being shadowed by the Russians, so he had a responsibility to make sure they saw little and heard even less!“
Prior to his promotion to the recovery job, he commanded the Naval Astronautics Group at Point Mugu, Calif. In a huge air-conditioned room stuffed with IBM computers, his task was to invent the precursor to the first Global Positioning System.
“This way the space capsules could be properly sent through the reentry ‘window’ and didn’t burn up in the atmosphere.
“My parents always had these huge ‘splashdown parties’ at the house after a landing, and I met many of the astronauts. When the USS Hornet was dedicated as a museum in Oakland, Calif., both Neil Armstrong (the first man to set foot on the moon) and my dad gave commemoration speeches.”
Tolleson said she met many astronauts, with the exception of the ones who did the moon missions. “They went straight back to Houston upon completion of the missions, but I saw the capsule and lunar module. I did meet most of the Gemini astronauts.
“One of our favorites was a Gemini ’naut named Alan Bean, who continued to visit at our quarters after he finished with astronauting and who I saw a number of times. I was pretty young during the Gemini shots, then a teenager who didn’t understand the total import of the Apollo activities.
“As we got older, we were kicked out of the house when the splashdown parties were held. I do remember encountering a few drunk ’nauts in our yard during those parties, and they were always very nice, even when wasted!
“We didn’t much care if we got kicked out, because we didn’t have a curfew on those nights. Yes, I usually had a curfew, even on Ford Island! My friends that would normally have to get off the island at my curfew could stay later and take the last ferry out at 2 a.m.
“We would hang out on the golf course, where we could get into mischief in the dark, fish off Fox 13 pier, drink beer, ride motorcycles and flirt with sailors around the movie theater.
“It was a very safe environment as you could only come and go on the ferry, as I was too young to drive. Dates, boyfriends and ‘off-islanders,’ as we called them, could only get on with permission. It really put a cramp in my dating style! My Mom wanted it that way. That way (she thought) we couldn’t get into trouble!”
For his leadership of the manned spacecraft recovery program, Capt. Robert Tolleson was given the Legion of Merit award in 1969. He retired to Honolulu and died in 2007 at age 89.